The past few weeks my attention was captivated by Netflix’s masterpiece, The Crown. The show portrays the historic role of the British Monarchy, and the circumstances that led to the ascension of the young and perhaps ill-prepared Elizabeth, eldest daughter of King George VI.
After the King’s untimely death, buttressed by the experience of Winston Churchill as prime minister, the United Kingdom entered the age of Queen Elizabeth II, which revealed in true majestic fashion the vitality of the British Monarchy. It is no surprise that the Queen’s reign enters its 65th year.
The parallels between two events, which occurred in different parts of the British Empire, are stark. Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in June 1953. The Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) was formed in November 1953. The formation of the Progressive Liberal Party was though not an event of obvious celebration. Both events, however, share the stage of being seminal events over the course of modern history.
The unassuming events of November 1953 led many to question the political bravery of the decision of William Cartwright, Michael Stevenson and Henry Taylor to form a political party in the colony. It was not the first attempt of “organized” party politics as a means to wrestle power and economic dominance from the Bay Street oligarchs. However, it proved some 65 years later, fostered by events and characters, and perhaps not in the contemplation of the three founders, to be a groundbreaking movement in Bahamian political history.
If you share the philosophical thinking that the monarchy is ordained by God, then too it follows that democracy and freedom are guiding principles set by Him for humanity.
Few Bahamians, especially those born after the 1990s, fully grasped the significance of November 1953. Even fewer recognize that but for Stevenson, Taylor and Cartwright, the events of the 1960s may have taken decades to come to fruition. It is remarkable that just 14 years after its formation, the PLP celebrated a major electoral victory. The history of the progressive struggle for (black) majority rule arguably started with Pompey’s rebellion in 1830; however, its greatest victory was achieved with the events that culminated on January 14, 1967, with the swearing in of the first majority black government.
The 14 years from 1953 to 1967 were by far a glorious period in the march to socio-economic liberation. The phenomenon of blacks entering the honorable House of Assembly did not commence in 1953. Much credit is owed to the heroic fate of Stephen Dillett being the first man of color to be elected in 1833. Other distinguished black political figures entered that hall and in some measured way began the march to the political dominance of the majority. However, it was the formation of the PLP and the burst of youthful intellectual and social activism of Pindling, Hanna, Foulkes, Whitfield and many others, including the suffragettes, that led to the dramatic socio-economic revolution of the 1970s.
The vision, philosophy and bravery of Taylor, Cartwright and Stevenson require celebration and national honor.
Much can be said about the role played by the PLP since its formation in 1953. Some truths are undeniable. The PLP is the oldest and most successful political machinery in Bahamian history. It served as the vehicle to allow for the removal of the final remnants of slavery and colonialism – the economic and political empowerment of poor black and white Bahamians. It crushed the status quo and shattered the glass ceiling which structurally prevented the amassing of wealth by Afro-Bahamians. This led to the formation of a middle class which never before existed.
It is not that difficult to consider the full effects of that singular moment in 1953. It is undeniable that the formation of the PLP played a dynamic role in the Bahamian national landscape. The past 65 years are supportive of a conclusion that no other event actually ushered in and catapulted a cause of national and personal change events.
I, like many Bahamians who are reaping the rewards of 1953, was not born in the age of social, economic and racial discrimination. My blackness is not scarred by events of segregation and open discrimination. One truth remains however, but for 1953 and the formation of the PLP, the relevance of party politics as an engine to bring about organized change and vast opportunities for social and economic parity may have taken a more radical turn.
I resist the urge of setting out a shopping list of the accomplishments of the PLP as a governing party. Politics is designed to bring about positive change for the people. The myriad of achievements need not be celebrated. On the 65th anniversary of the formation of the PLP, the test is to find its continued relevance in our modern political patronage.
The PLP of 1953 was rightly focused on a resolve for social justice and equality for all. It saw its role as an equalizer – to formulate policies designed to create and expand the opportunities for its supporters and the nation at large. It had a real agenda for change, which was understood by those who supported its leadership.
The greatest challenge for Queen Elizabeth and the British Monarchy, some 65 years after her coronation, is its relevance. So too is the compelling test for the PLP. Is it relevant today as a political organization aimed at uplifting the masses and creating a just society?
The continued relevance of the PLP lies in its message and political ethos. The Bahamas is not that of the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. Much has changed, and considerable success has been achieved. The ‘old’ talk of a poor man’s party and being the party for the downtrodden will reduce the PLP to a narrow voting class. Its majority is not guaranteed by catering to a base that is not reflective of the modern norms.
The trust that must be created requires a new coalition formed by the active engagement of educated and upwardly mobile Bahamians. To cater to this dynamic cohort, the PLP must modernize its antiquated message.
It must speak with references to the virtues that can be achieved through economic empowerment, shared prosperity and a society focused on technological innovation and educational transformation. The ultimate goal must be to create a nation of a disciplined and peaceful people who respect social customs and norms.
The next 65 years of PLPism will be defined by how it responds to the big elephant – is it relevant today?
The 65th anniversary of the formation of the PLP is an historic milestone. In the midst of the celebrations, the PLP must focus on its continued reform. It must also welcome the political change brought on by its success and achievements demand today that the party look beyond its history. It should embrace critical and matured self-examination with the goal that many will see it as a viable political constant for progressive change and triumphs in the year ahead.
The relevance question is a compelling one. The sooner it is embraced, the better the chance for the party to herald a new chapter of intellectual political exuberance. But for now, the party is welcome to celebrate this historic milestone. It stands as the oldest and most successful party in Bahamian modern history. Its place in the archives is guaranteed.
The new chapter must now be written – what lies ahead in its next 65 years.
•Raynard Rigby is an attorney-at-law and is a former chairman of the Progressive Liberal Party (2002-2008). He recently served as chairman of the party’s Constitutional Committee which released a new constitution for the party at its July 2018 convention.